Last week, I wrote about Ian Buruma’s commentary on some Asian countries in his book, God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey.
Mr. Buruma tries to veer away from stereotyping the East as a strange object of intellectual inquiry. This was also the thesis of Edward Said in his highly influential book, Orientalism (1978). Professor Said pointed out that these Western books turned the East into an “Other” that is exotic, feminine, and different. Therefore, it is a land to be conquered, to be colonized, to be contained. It is a land to be turned into facsimiles of the West.
His book is like a series of photographs that capture moments of transition in Asian history. He focuses on “what happens to people when the loyalties and traditions of the village break down and are replaced by the complexities of the modern world.” It seems like a burdensome thesis, but Mr. Buruma’s book is most illuminating when he writes about people and spares no incident, whether big or small, as long as it throws light on his theme. He has the journalist’s nose for news and the fiction writer’s gift for the anecdote.
“The Village and the City” contrasts the neighbors Burma (renamed Myanmar by its military rulers in 1988) and Thailand. Because he had difficulty staying long in Myanmar, Mr. Buruma’s essay on the country is naturally thin, relying mostly on historical vignettes. I also have a problem with his dichotomy between the village and the city. I think it is too simplistic. Surely, in Asia today, the pace of development is uneven, such that some parts of the city still remind you of the village, while a few parts of the village seem so urban. Thus, the labels of “village” and “city” become slippery constructs when seen in this light.
The essay on South Korea is more instructive. He points out “the complex and sometimes explosive mixture of shame and chauvinism in South Korea. The one, of course, stokes the flames of the other. There is a Korean term for pandering to foreign powers: Sadae chuui. And Koreans are forever accusing one another of it. These accusations are not without reason, for Koreans have a long history of using outside powers to fight opponents at home.”
This peninsula divided into two countries, this country located between China and Japan, is beset by an identity crisis. It seems to have an inferiority complex masquerading as superiority. There is a constant desire among the South Koreans to prove they are better than their neighbors whether it is in the economy, in having “the most scientific and best writing system in the world,” and, yes, in the race for the slimmest cell phones and the most durable SUV. It seems, Mr. Buruma suggests, that “Koreans often can only define themselves in terms of a foreign civilization.” More so if they can prove themselves better than that foreign civilization.
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Mr. Buruma’s essay on Japan is the best. If there is one flaw here, it is the hasty generalization that “Japanese intellectuals often seem marginal figures, writing for one another, respected as men of learning, but not taken seriously by the world at large.” Of course, in any society I am sure even in London, where Mr. Buruma lives intellectuals are marginal figures. The same intellectuals write for The London Review of Books that the same coterie of intellectuals reads. He also failed to note that there are now public intellectuals people in academe who write for newspapers and magazines and who appear even on TV talk shows, giving depth and illumination even if they are only allowed so many column inches or so many seconds for their sound-bites. And I am sure Mr. Buruma has read the novels of Harumi Murakami, one of Japan’s best writers and intellectuals who dissects Japanese society with a pen as focused as a laser beam.
However, it is this, in the end that mars the book of Mr. Buruma. If only he spent more time sitting down and reading more books on Asian history especially books that give credit to what the East has done in the history of ideas or the turn of events he would have avoided the historical gaps in his book.
The essay on Thailand also suffers from this gap. Mr. Buruma says that “The Thais have been both clever and lucky in their relations with foreigners. The Thais were lucky that the British and the French, the two major colonial powers, neutralized each other, so that Siam became a kind of buffer zone between Burma, Malaya, and Indochina.”
This is a flippant assertion the events of history do not bear this out. A country is not simply “lucky” that the two colonizers around it “neutralized” each other. Saying so is to diminish the pivotal role played by King Chulalongkorn (known to the Thais as Chula Chom Klao or Rama V), who reigned from 1868-1910. Educated by European tutors and drawing inspiration from his father, the great libertarian King Mongkut (known to the Thais as Phra Chom Klao or Rama IV), King Chulalongkorn opened the doors of his country wider to the West. He also built railroads, established a civil service, and restructured the legal system. Verily, he brought his country to the 20th century.
But this was also the time when Siam was being threatened by two greedy colonial powers. How to ward off the might of these two empires the British and the French? It is not a matter of luck, then, but shrewdness that saved the day for Siam. King Chulalongkorn and his emissaries negotiated with the French and British colonial powers. True, the King was compelled to concede some territory to French Indochina (Laos in 1893 and Cambodia in 1907) and to the British Burma (three Malayan states in 1909). But the fruit of these concessions was that Siam was never colonized, and a large part of its territory remained under Siamese hands. And to this day, the Thais are one of the proudest peoples in Asia, with dignity and a sense of national self intact.
Although Mr. Buruma is a fine and accessible guide to modern Asia, what we need at this point in our cultural history are writers who come from the continent itself. Steeped in the history of Asia and nurtured by its cultures, I hope that they will write the books that will finally give authentic voices to the complex and colorful continent we live in. A few of them have already done that. Thus, t real journey has just begun for our Asia, truly Asia.
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